When Seculars Get Sectarian

April 16, 2013

Like all "Free Thinking" bloggers, I am speaking -- or writing, or typing, or whatever -- strictly personally. Just wanted to make that doubleplus clear. 

Making the rounds on Facebook is an announcement that yet another humanist/atheist charity has started a fund drive for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings. It's a fine cause, but I wonder whether its organizers have considered the implications when nonbelievers -- normally quick to revile sectarianism when religious people indulge in it -- conduct a blatantly sectarian appeal for aid. Perhaps it's overdue to review the full meaning of the word "secular."

The appeal I saw came from Atheists Giving Aid, which apparently is not to be confused with Nonbelievers Giving Aid, and surely should not be confused with Dale McGowan's Foundation Beyond Belief. CFI itself has its Skeptics and Humanists Aid and Relief Effort (SHARE). And I'm sure I'm inadvertently omitting a few other worthy groups. Such groups have a seductive appeal -- what better way to rebut religious claims that faith alone makes people charitable than to have conspicuous atheist and humanist charities out there? But unbeliever charities inevitably pose a nasty do-the-ends-justify-the-means problem. Secular folks are usually, and quite properly, disdainful of sectarianism. But the very idea of an atheist or humanist charity -- that is, one that solicits funds principally from unbelievers and presents the funds raised to the public as the product of atheist/humanist generosity -- is inherently sectarian.

We seculars are also usually quick to argue that religions and non-religious lifestances should be treated alike. We suggest that an atheist pacifist's objection to military service should be honored just as a religious conscientious objector's is. We contend that if people have a freedom-of-religion right to embrace any faith they choose, then there should be a corresponding freedom-of-conscience right to reject religion altogether, or to embrace any chosen lifestance whether religious or not. Okay, so if sectarianism is regrettable when religious people engage in it, why is it OK when atheists do it?

Let's consider how a truly, thoroughly secular charity would operate. In general, charities a) raise money from donors, b) target particular beneficiaries, and c) mobilize volunteers and/or employees to deliver services to the beneficiaries. A truly secular charity should be not only religion-blind, but lifestance-blind, all the way down that chain. That's why few seculars are taken in by, say, Catholic Charities' frequent claim to be nonsectarian. OK, Catholic Charities does not restrict its services to Catholics; it does not discriminate according to the lifestance of the beneficiary. Bully for them. Catholic Charities does not (usually) discriminate according to lifestance in volunteer recruitment or hiring. Bully again. But it openly, proudly discriminates according to the lifestance of its donors! Leaving aside the money it receives from government contracts, where does Catholic Charities raise its voluntary public support? In Catholic churches and throughout the Catholic community. And who do you find in the Catholic community? Catholics, right? Now, non-Catholics can give to Catholic Charities -- it won't send an Episcopalian's check back, nor an atheist's -- but when the organization takes that money out into the community to do its admittedly good works, what banner does it go under? (Hint: what is the first word in its name?)

So, case closed. Catholic Charities is a nonsecular charity because it seeks funding principally among Catholics ... and then implies through its branding that 100% of its voluntary funding comes from Catholics whether or not that is completely true.

Now, I don't know a lot about Atheists Giving Aid. I will assume that they do not restrict their support to victims of the Boston bombing who are atheists. I will assume that they do not discriminate in volunteer recruitment and hiring, if they even do such things instead of just conveying the money they raise to some other charity. (If I am wrong on either of those scores, please let me know -- and then I'll have further grounds for objecting on grounds of sectarianism.) But the organization's name says it all -- Atheists Giving Aid discriminates by definition in the sources of funding it pursues. It seeks donations principally among atheists, and even if a few non-atheists manage to sneak some money in there, Atheists Giving Aid is going to go out in the world representing by implication that the money it has raised came entirely from atheists. That's just how people who speak English will interpret its name.

Whether you call yourself an atheist, an agnostic, a humanist, a freethinker, or a None, if you also call yourself secular you should feel at least a little strange about this. If you're secular enough to find, say, Catholic Charities inappropriate and archaic -- if you're secular enough to look forward to a future when outfits like Lutheran Social Services and the United Jewish Appeal no longer exist, simply because supporters have lost interest in them -- then you ought to get a strong sense of "one step forward, two steps back" when the atheist community imitates the religious community at its most regressive and creates new charities that are, sigh, sectarian about unbelief.

What should we be doing instead? On my view, truly secular people should be channeling their charity dollars through channels that are 100% lifestance-blind. Yes, that means giving up some cool opportunities to wave the freethought flag and crow "Look, we're generous too!" But it doesn't help to build the more secular society of the future for our community to launch new charities that model the same sectarianism we rightly object to among the religious.

After all, if lifestances and religions deserve to be treated alike -- if freedom of religion is merely a subset of freedom of conscience -- then sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If we want to work toward a society without sectarianism, we must start by modeling the virtues of nonsectarianism -- ALL of those virtues -- ourselves.

For myself, I may send some money in for Boston bombing relief. But I won't send it through a humanist or atheist charity -- that's unsecular. I'll write a check not as a freethinker, but as a proud member of what is (aspirationally, at least) a secular society. I'll give as an individual. Anyone know a good Boston-based charity that's lifestance-blind all the way down?